New Dam's Potential Impact in India

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In India’s Northern State of Sikkim, Ambitious Hydroelectric Dam Development in Remote Rural Areas Threatens the Livelihood of Locals and the Fragile Himalayan Ecosystem

Eager dam developers and well-connected landowners standing to make a fortune off their land convinced Chungthang city residents the 1200 (MWt) Teesta III Hydro Power Project would bring jobs and prosperity to the city. 

As India continues to grow into a burgeoning world power, increasing the nation’s electrical generation is essential in order to elevate the Indian standard of living. Coal-fired power plants supply most of India’s electrical demand but, as India’s coal reserves dwindle, cultivating the hydropower potential of the rivers cascading through the Himalaya Mountains has become a national priority.

In North Sikkim, two glacier-fed rivers, the Lachung and the Lachen, meet at Chungthang’s southern tip to form the Teesta River. At this confluence the Teesta III is under construction, set to start generating power in 2015. At this point the full reservoir will surround Chungthang and the city will become a peninsula. 

In addition, geological reports warn that tunnel blasting and extensive damming on the Teesta will increase the frequency and severity of future earthquakes. In September 2011, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake shook Sikkim and caused tunnel collapses and the death of 40 workers drilling to channel water from the Teesta III reservoir to the power station in Mangan, 30 kilometers south of Chungthang.

In Sikkim, the local governmental budget is almost entirely dependent on the Indian central government and, due to the state’s underdeveloped private sector, the Sikkim economy is dependent on state government spending. Harnessing hydroelectric power brings in revenue for the state and increases Sikkim’s financial autonomy. 

As the prize jewel of Chief Minister Chamling’s hydroelectric initiatives, the 1200 megawatt (MWt) Teesta Stage III Hydro Power Project in Chungthang boasts the largest planned generation capacity of any hydroelectric project in Sikkim. It will generate 15 times the 80 MWt electrical demand of Sikkim. The power generated is designed for export to appease the growing electricity demands of greater India and provide revenue for the Sikkim government.

Issues with similar hydroelectric projects that have been built downstream foreshadow complications with the Teesta III. A few miles downstream of Chungthang, at the city of Dikchu, the Teesta V Hydro Power Project dam wall collects debris, silt, and runoff from the frequent landslides and erosion caused by heavy rains. The accumulated debris behind the dam wall threatens to block floodgates and compromise dam equipment. After completion, the Teesta III will regularly collect debris and runoff from the two rivers upstream, especially during the summer months of the monsoon season.

In addition to the builder’s empty promises, the collateral damage from blasting tunnels through the Himalayan mountains is now common knowledge in the Chungthang community. “All the time, blasting was all the time…while we were sleeping we’d hear that sound, the blasting sound. It’s a kind of unrest, mind disturbing, no?” remembers Passang Lepcha. Perennial streams used for drinking water and crop irrigation have been disappearing as they seep down into the tunnels running under people’s homes.

Source: PulitzerCenter

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